September 28 marks World Rabies Day, a global health observance that seeks to raise awareness about rabies and enhance prevention and control efforts.

After the death of a Soldier from rabies last year, Army public health officials are reiterating the need for Soldiers to stay vigilant and protect themselves from the deadly disease. They warn Army personnel to be aware of the risk of rabies during travel or deployments to less developed countries, and to seek prompt medical treatment if they have a bite or scratch from an animal while deployed.

"In a deployed environment, it's best to treat every animal as potentially rabid," said Col. Steven Cersovsky, senior physician epidemiologist at the U.S. Army Public Health Command.

Soldiers who deploy are educated about how to prevent the disease during routine pre-deployment medical threat briefings. These prevention measures include not approaching, feeding or handling animals, and not adopting animals as pets or mascots. Educational tools such as posters and cards also are available from the USAPHC Web site for use before and during deployment.

DOD health officials are also continuing to ensure that medical providers are trained on rabies evaluation and treatment protocols, and that Soldiers understand what they should do if they are exposed to a bite or scratch from a wild animal.

"Individuals who receive bites from animals should wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water, and promptly seek medical attention," said Cersovsky.

If medical treatment is warranted, the Soldiers will receive a series of shots in the arm over a period of several weeks.

"If individuals obtain medical treatment promptly following a potential rabies exposure, nearly all cases of rabies can be prevented," said Cersovsky.

Most recently, DOD officials have updated the Post-Deployment Health Assessment and Post-Deployment Health Reassessment forms--health questionnaires that Soldiers complete after returning from a deployment.

"We have always asked Soldiers about animal bites on these questionnaires, but now there is a more specific question on these forms that asks redeploying personnel to identify if they have been bitten or scratched by an animal while deployed," said Cersovsky.

Cersovsky also said there is still a space on the form for Soldiers to write in information about a possible rabies exposure, or any other health concern they may have. These free-text fields are now more easily accessible to Army medical providers.

Many Soldiers may fear coming forward to report animal bites because they may be reprimanded for not following the U.S. Central Command's general order to avoid contact with wild and stray animals. But Army medical personnel say fear of punishment should not prohibit a Soldier from coming forward.

"It is vital that everyone with potential exposures receive immediate medical evaluation," said Cersovsky. "Rabies is a fatal disease, and it should be taken seriously."

The rabies virus infects the central nervous system, ultimately causing disease in the brain and death.

Rabies is rare in the United States, due to an active vaccination program for pets. The vast majority of human rabies cases that occur in the United States each year are the result of contact with wild animals like raccoons, skunks, bats and foxes. But in the developing world, dog bites are the most common cause of human infection, causing more than 99 percent of the estimated 55,000 human deaths from rabies each year.

For more information on rabies and how to prevent the disease, visit:

U.S. Army Public Health Command, http://phc.amedd.army.mil/topics/discond/aid/Pages/Rabies.aspx

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov/rabies

Wounded Soldier and Family Hotline, 1-800-984-8523.

Page last updated Thu September 13th, 2012 at 00:00